Entry updated 13 December 2023. Tagged: Theme.
People have unfortunately decided to end their own lives throughout history for various reasons, and suicides of this type are regularly depicted in sf as well as other forms of literature. However, suicide on a broader scale – involving numerous citizens, all members of a society, or even an entire species – is a distinctive theme in sf. Humans or Aliens may eradicate themselves in a usually inadvertent but predictable fashion, usually by means of a nuclear Holocaust; future societies, as a way to cope with Overpopulation or other problems, may actively encourage their citizens to commit suicide; and humans facing global Disasters may choose mass suicide to avoid the pain of their expected demise or may sacrifice themselves to benefit a successor race, regarding the survival of intelligent life as more important than their own survival.
Individual acts of suicide are innumerable in sf, but some are worth mentioning. Two of sf's most renowned Mad Scientists – Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus (1818; rev 1831) and Dr Henry Jekyll in Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) – end their lives by committing suicide, tormented by the effects of their ill-fated experiments. In H G Wells's "The Moth" (March 1895 Pall Mall Gazette) a Scientist bedevilled by a moth which apparently embodies his deceased rival commits suicide. Eando Binder's "Ships That Come Back" (November 1935 Astounding) features a Spaceship captain compelled to jettison his cargo who commits suicide. A mentally disturbed spaceman kills himself by plunging into the vacuum of space in Clark Ashton Smith's "Master of the Asteroid" (October 1932 Wonder Stories). Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) ends with the discovery that the "Savage" who cannot accept the poisoned Utopia/Dystopia of the title has hanged himself. In David R Daniels's "The Branches of Time" (August 1935 Wonder Stories), a man in the future kills all surviving humans and then commits suicide, although a Time Traveller prevents this from happening and enables humanity to survive. Mort Weisinger's "The Prenatal Plagiarism" (January 1935 Wonder Stories) involves the author of a brilliant novel who is discredited because a time traveller copied his text and published the book in the past, creating the perception that he plagiarized the work. The ancient eponymous Villain of T H White's The Master (1957), having broken his leg at the climax, drowns himself rather than struggle further. A guilt-ridden Scientist whose innocent discovery is used for bad ends chooses painless death by "protein depolarizer" Ray in Isaac Asimov's "The Feeling of Power" (February 1958 If). In the doomed-from-the-outset Colonization of Other Worlds scenario of Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To ... (January-February 1976 Galaxy; 1977), the female protagonist resists male plans for forced pregnancy, kills her oppressors and prepares for her own death.
Robert A Heinlein's moving "Requiem" (January 1940 Astounding) describes an aging entrepreneur who fulfils his lifelong dream of landing on the Moon even though he knows the experience will kill him; in the same author's "The Green Hills of Earth" (8 February 1947 Saturday Evening Post) the down-and-out balladeer protagonist dies to save others by making vital repairs in a high-radiation area of a Spaceship, singing his last song the while. Two stories about men who make the first flight to the Moon, knowing they will die there without the possibility of return, are Raymond Z Gallun's "The Flight of the RX-1" (July 1933 Amazing Stories) and Pierre Boulle's Le jardin de Kanashima (1964; trans by Ian Fielding as Garden on the Moon 1965). In the context of oxygen shortage aboard a Spaceship, the question of which astronaut will die to save the other drives the plot of Arthur C Clarke's "Breaking Strain" (December 1949 Thrilling Wonder). The trope reappears with a three-man team in the film Marooned (1969) directed by John Sturges; this was based on Martin Caidin's Marooned (1964; rev 1969), initially involving the rescue of a sole stranded astronaut with no suicide required, but revised by Caidin to accord with the film version. The Outward Urge (coll of linked stories 1959; exp 1961) by John Wyndham "with" his pseudonym Lucas Parkes features a spacewalking astronaut who intercepts, briefly diverts and in the end deliberately detonates a homing missile to save his Space Station crewmates. In the Men into Space episode "A Handful of Hours" (1960), an astronaut on the Moon willingly sacrifices his own life to provide his crewmates with a needed tool within his spacesuit. In Allen Glasser and A Rowley Hilliard's "The Martian" (Winter 1932 Wonder Stories Quarterly) a Martian (see Mars) is treated cruelly while on Earth and is finally driven to commit suicide; another visiting Martian – a Robot – also experiences mistreatment on Earth and kills himself in John Wyndham's "The Lost Machine" (April 1932 Amazing Stories). Cordwainer Smith's offbeat tale "Under Old Earth" (February 1966 Galaxy) sees a very old Lord of the Instrumentality deliberately embracing death by Antimatter explosion (with the concomitant destruction of many others) to save the world from a contaminated First Contact; another such prophylactic suicide, also involving antimatter, takes place in Alastair Reynolds's Revelation Space (2000).
Michael Moorcock's "Behold the Man" (September 1966 New Worlds; exp 1969), is about a time traveller (see Time Travel) who, upon discovering that the real Jesus Christ is a congenital idiot, assumes his persona and thus chooses an eventual death on the cross. Also in the context of Religion, Valentine Michael Smith in Robert A Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961; text restored 1991) sets the seal on his Messiah status by voluntarily going to his death at the hands and Weapons of an enraged mob. In Howard D Graham's "Time Haven" (September 1934 Astounding Stories) a man in Suspended Animation awakens in a future world that provides him with no freedom and commits suicide. A scientist living in a Space Station in Stanisław Lem's Solaris (1961; trans Joanna Kilmartin and Steve Cox [from French trans] 1970; new trans by Bill Johnston 2011) is driven to suicide by phantoms generated by the enigmatic alien world he is investigating. In Philip K Dick's Dr Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb (written 1963; 1965), the wife of a man orbiting Earth in a space station after a nuclear war commits suicide. In Iain M Banks's Look to Windward (2000), the alien protagonist and an AI "Mind" – both psychically scarred by past Wars – opt for simultaneous suicide.
Heinlein's Time Enough for Love (1973) begins with its immortal protagonist Lazarus Long (see Immortality) attempting to commit suicide because he sees no future possibilities for his life; but he is rescued by his descendants and successfully urged to continue living. In Octavia E Butler's Kindred (1979), the protagonist's ancestor Alice commits suicide when she is told that her slaveowner has sold her children. Kurt Vonnegut Jr's iconic hack writer Kilgore Trout commits suicide in "Requiem for a Dreamer" (October 15 2004 In These Times), depressed by predictions of George W Bush's re-election. The heroine of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games (2008) and her boyfriend thwart the evil overseers of the contest by threatening to jointly commit suicide. In the film Prometheus (2012), an alien visiting Earth in ancient times dissolves his body in order to seed the Earth with his fecund DNA; this echoes the plots of Alfred Bester's "Adam and No Eve" (September 1941 Astounding) and John Brunner's "The Windows of Heaven" (May 1956 New Worlds as "Two by Two"; rev vt in No Future in It coll 1962), in both of which the Last Man on a sterilized Earth realizes that his own death and bacterial decay could seed a new cycle of Evolution. More grandiosely, the doomed man trapped in ever-increasing pendulum swings of Time Travel in A E van Vogt's The Weapon Shops of Isher (fixup 1951) comes to understand that the colossal energy he is accumulating must be discharged in the remote past: "He would not witness but he would aid in the formation of the planets." But the most famous suicide in sf may be Mr Spock's decision to sacrifice himself to save his crewmates in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) – though he is restored to life in the next film in the series, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984).
The concept of repeated suicide seems paradoxical but is occasionally deployed in sf – for example in Philip José Farmer's To Your Scattered Bodies Go (fixup 1971), in whose Riverworld setting there is automatic Reincarnation at some seemingly random location, allowing the protagonist to explore this world via "Suicide Express". Iterated suicides are in fact murders in Frederick Pohl's A Plague of Pythons (October-December 1962 Galaxy; 1965; rev vt Demon in the Skull 1984), where Secret Masters wreak havoc via a device allowing temporary possession via Identity Transfer of any human body, whose self-destruction does not harm the distant possessor and can quickly be followed by further such proxy killings. Attempts to escape via suicide from a repeating Time Loop prove futile in Groundhog Day (1993) directed by Harold Ramis.
However frowned upon by Religion as a short cut to the afterlife, suicide may in certain sf contexts be seen as offering personal secular advantage. The protagonist of A E van Vogt's The World of Ā (August-October 1945 Astounding; rev 1948) occupies multiple bodies in succession and at one stage conditions himself towards suicide to clear the way for his next self (though circumstances change and the plan is abandoned); the female lead of William C Anderson's Adam M-1 (1964) suicides so that her brain can animate an Eve companion for the titular Cyborg (see Adam and Eve); Yama in Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light (1967) escapes captivity using apparent self-destruction as a cloak for long-range Identity Transfer; a serial possessor in Tim Powers's The Anubis Gates (1983; rev 1984) covers his tracks by taking Poison before each new Identity Exchange; one character in Justina Robson's Silver Screen (1999) deliberately trades his biological life for the dubious joys of Upload.
Two sf novels describe future societies that undertake to revive suicides, but for different reasons: in Doris Piserchia's I, Zombie (1982) as by Curt Selby, suicides are brought back to life to work as labourers, while in James Stevens-Arce's Soulsaver (2000), an American government dominated by Christian fundamentalism (see Religion) has a "Suicide Prevention Corps of America" that brings suicides back to life using Cryonics in order to punish them.
In other stories, suicide is normalized by societies facing special difficulties. An Underground civilization of dwarfs actively encourages inadequate workers to commit suicide in David H Keller's The Conquerors (December 1929-January 1930 Science Wonder Stories [see Wonder Stories]). A mass suicide similar to the one effected in 1979 by cult leader Jim Jones is planned in Simon Spurrier's Strontium Dog: Prophet Margin (2005). A form of socially-sanctioned suicide occurs in the Star Trek episode "A Taste of Armageddon" (1967), in which two alien civilizations have agreed to fight a war by means of Computer simulations, so when a battle causes projected casualties, designated citizens are expected to voluntarily report to facilities where they will be disintegrated. People are also expected to willingly go to "Sleepshops" where they will be killed at the age of 21 in William F Nolan and George Clayton Johnson's Logan's Run (1967); the mandated age of death is 30 in the film adaptation Logan's Run (1976).
Organized suicide arrangements evoke a sinister frisson. The secret Suicide Club in Robert Louis Stevenson's New Arabian Nights (coll 1882) is at least ostensibly a mutual support group for the suicidal but timorous: members draw cards to learn who will kill whom. A memorable example of socially-promoted suicide in the future is observed in the film Soylent Green (1971), wherein an elderly Edward G Robinson voluntarily goes into a government-sponsored suicide clinic to end his life while enveloped by pleasant music and images. Robert W Chambers's "The Repairer of Reputations" (in The King in Yellow coll 1895) features legalized suicide in the then Near Future of 1920, with official "Government Lethal Chambers"; Max Beerbohm's Parody of H G Wells, "Perkins and Mankind" (in A Christmas Garland coll 1912), envisions a hygienic Utopian future with "Municipal Lethal Chambers"; the "Life Terminal Building" in Eric Frank Russell's "U-Turn" (April 1950 Astounding) houses a Matter Transmitter with a high failure rate, whose would-be-suicide survivors become colonists of Jupiter's moon Callisto; in Vonnegut's "Welcome to the Monkey House" (January 1968 Playboy), a future society controls population by urging people to visit "Ethical Suicide Parlors"; in the anthology Five Fates (anth 1970) edited by Keith Laumer, each story takes off from Laumer's brief build-up to the protagonist's imminent death on a slab in the "Euthanasia Center"; residents of S P Somtow's Mallworld (1981) can visit "suicide parlours"; and in the animated series Futurama (1999-2003; 2010-2013; 2023-current) future citizens have easy access to "suicide booths". B Willis's and George C Wallis's The Mother World (Spring/Summer 1933 Amazing Stories Quarterly) depicts an alien society in which dissatisfied citizens are directed to commit suicide by embarking on endless voyages into space.
Regarding the suicide of entire races, some have suggested that intelligent beings may naturally tend to drive themselves to extinction using advanced Weapons, this being one way to explain why humans have been unable to detect signs of Extraterrestrial life (see Fermi Paradox; SETI). Stories about humans who engage in destructive wars tend to conclude optimistically, with survivors poised to resume progress, though there are sardonic exceptions like Damon Knight's "Shall the Dust Praise Thee?" (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison), and an embittered astronaut decides to destroy himself and a future Earth inhabited by devolved humans (see Devolution), crazed Mutants, and intelligent apes in the film Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970). The enigmatic eponyms of Brian Aldiss's "The Failed Men" (May 1956 Science Fantasy as "Ahead"; vt in Space, Time and Nathaniel coll 1957) are Far-Future human descendants who have given up, literally buried themselves, and respond unhelpfully to their would-be rescuers from the Intertemporal Red Cross. Aliens in sf are more likely to succeed in entirely destroying themselves; for example, in Stanisław Lem's Astronauci ["The Astronauts"] (1951) – filmed as Der Schweigende Stern (1960) (see entry for vts) – astronauts land on Venus to discover that the Venusians have all killed themselves in a nuclear war before they could execute their plans to invade Earth. In Arthur C Clarke's "Report on Planet Three" (May 1959 Holiday as "From Mars: A Report on Earth"), humans exploring Mars discover that the Martians destroyed themselves in a nuclear war, and find an ancient article by a Martian scientist explaining that life could not possibly exist on Earth. In the back-story of Anne McCaffrey's Decision at Doona (1969), the alien Siwannese opted for mass suicide as a reaction to human First Contact. Larry Niven's Draco Tavern Club Story "The Subject Is Closed" (May 1977 Cosmos) tells of alien racial suicide triggered by research into the possibility of an afterlife (see Eschatology). In Peter F Hamilton's The Reality Dysfunction (1996), the alien Laymil committed racial suicide 2000 years before the action of the story because they were unable to deal with the existential Metaphysical menace that now begins to threaten humanity.
The narrator of James Elroy Flecker's The Last Generation: A Story of the Future (1908 chap) has a vision of a future society in which a cult of mass suicide eventually leads to humanity's extinction. In G Peyton Wertenbaker's "The Coming of the Ice" (June 1926 Amazing Stories), future humans confronting a cooling Earth gradually being covered with glaciers opt for suicide (see Climate Change), and in George Borodin's Spurious Sun (1948; vt The Threatened People [no library cites a date]), a Future War leads to mass suicides. In C I Defontenay's Star, ou Ψ de Cassiopée: histoire merveilleuse de l'un des mondes de l'espace, nature singulière, coutumes, voyages, littérature starienne, poèmes et comédies traduits du starien (1854; trans P J Sokolowski as Star [Psi Cassiopeia] 1975 US, with intro by Pierre Versins), a group of aliens responds to a devastating plague by calling for a mass suicide which is almost entirely successful. In a dying universe of the Far Future, almost all of the now-immortal humans have chosen suicide in Milton Kaletsky's "The End of the Universe" (April 1934 Wonder Stories); similarly immortal people resolve to commit suicide along with an alien race of enormous brains in Guy Wernham's "The Outcasts" (November 1934 Astounding).
A Martian race facing death plans to exterminate humanity and immigrate to Earth, but ultimately resolves to commit mass suicide instead in John Russell Fearn's "Subconscious" (August 1936 Amazing Stories). Anticipating their extinction, the Seventh Men of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men (1930) almost entirely resolve to commit suicide; in response to a similar situation, a society of descendants from ancient Greece also chooses suicide in Charles B Stilson's Minos of Sardanes (1949). In S Fowler Wright's The Adventure of Wyndham Smith (1938), residents of a decadent Utopia all resolve to commit suicide. Facing certain death after a nuclear World War Three, residents of Australia are offered suicide pills in Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957) and its film adaptation (1959). Racial suicide is the subject of Edmond Hamilton's "The Dead Planet" (Spring 1946 Startling Stories), in which aliens investigating Earth's extinct civilization discover that humanity sacrificed itself to save the galaxy from evil energy beings (see Altruism). J H Rosny-aîné's La mort de la terre (29 May-17 July 1910 Annales littéraires et politiques; 1910; trans George Slusser as The Death of the Earth in The Xipehuz and The Death of the Earth omni 1978; new trans Brian Stableford in The Navigators of Space and Other Alien Encounters omni 2010; further new trans Danièle Chatelain and Slusser in Three Science Fiction Novellas: From Prehistory to the End of Time omni 2012) concludes with a mass suicide, as most humans on a future Dying Earth opt for death by euthanasia, but one man altruistically sacrifices himself to assist humanity's probable "ferromagnetic" successors.
In the one major critical study of this subject, Carlos Gutiérrez-Jones in Suicide and Contemporary Science Fiction (2015) argues that in several major sf texts, suicide paradoxically figures as a means to achieve transformative progress, which is certainly the case in such above-cited works as La mort de la terre, "Adam and No Eve", "The Windows of Heaven" and Prometheus. Yet elsewhere, in life and in sf, suicide is undeniably linked to social decay and decadence, and imaginative texts often regard widespread suicide as an effect of the impending end of civilization. Certainly, no one would interpret the contemporary rise in the numbers of youthful suicides as a sign of social advancement, but rather as a symptom of severe social problems that are being insufficiently addressed. And sf itself has been negatively impacted by the suicides of several prominent writers, including Richard Brautigan, Egon Friedell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Robert E Howard, Walter M Miller Jr, H Beam Piper and James Tiptree Jr. [GW/DRL]
see also: Space Cowboys.
- Gary Westfahl. "Suicide" in Volume 2: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005) edited by Gary Westfahl [encyclopedia: second of three volumes: pp762-764: foreword by Neil Gaiman: hb/from the Forrest J Ackerman collection]
- Carlos Gutiérrez-Jones, Suicide and Contemporary Science Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) [hb/]
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